I grew up four blocks and well-thrown baseball away from where Memorial Stadium used to be. This doesn’t mean much to most of the world but this is how I describe my parents’ house to Baltimore natives. In response there’s always a nod, a smile, and many times a story about seeing the Orioles or Colts win a big one on that hallowed ground during simpler days.
Baltimore is a city in which people locate landmarks and neighborhoods by what “used to be there”—not because there isn’t a replacement or we haven’t seen the new occupant yet—we are a people who cling to tradition and memory. We know this about one another and out of respect we give our directions based on the land uses of yore. It’s an unwritten language, just like the long drawl of the letter “o” that occurs when a Baltimorean’s lower jaw juts beyond the upper, particularly unabashedly during the National Anthem. “OH” say can you see?
Our neighborhood, Ednor Gardens Lakeside, sits in Northeast Baltimore one asphalt hill away from what is now a diversely populated YMCA and clusters of affordable housing for the elderly. The website for Ednor Gardens Lakeside scrolls through pictures of some of its Tudor-style homes wrapped in ivy or enveloped by hydrangeas, none of which look like the middle-of-group-row house where my mom used to read me Goodnight Moon in the early ‘90s. The site doesn’t display the water filtration plant that’s been littered with bulldozers and jersey walls for a decade. It omits images of the speed humps the city installed to stop gangs like the 12 O’clock Boys from ripping wheelies on dirt bikes down residential streets. And, maybe most dishonestly, it fails to include a picture of the spot where Memorial Stadium used to be.
Despite the glaring omission, as a YMCA and low-income community for the elderly, this place undoubtedly still carries on the great legacy of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, home of the Orioles, the Colts, and the Ravens, the “Old Gray Lady of 33rd Street” though the “Lady” is no longer home.
The square of land that hosted Baltimore’s famous greats sits three blocks by three blocks in Ednor Gardens Lakeside. From the north on 36th Street peering above a row of leafy bushes, the downtown business district, three miles to the south, appears almost peaceful. From here soft clouds ripple gently around Baltimore’s tallest office buildings. Just over these bushes though, the immediate view has changed much more in 10 years than the distant—from a half-century of professional feats at Memorial to the recent decade where thousands of amateurs stretch in yoga, backstroke in the pool, and strike up strange conversations in the locker room.
On three sides of the square, stone and brick row homes stare at the space as they have since just after World War I. Most are well maintained. Perhaps speaking for their residents, they look complacent. They’ve watched their larger front yard greatly transform with little say .
The fourth side faces 33rd Street where treadmill runners behind wide panes of glass view cars going too fast past the building that used to be Eastern High School—huge and brick with sides that reach out like arms toward an old friend at right angles.
Just a few sidewalk tiles down was hallowed ground, if hallowed ground can be moved to past tense. The proud façade of Memorial Stadium stood there for almost 50 years mourning the dead and, for a time, immortalizing them in art deco lettering. Elongated silver letters—maybe better suited for a diner sign—solemnized those, “who so valiantly fought in the world wars with eternal gratitude to those who made the supreme sacrifice to preserve equality and freedom throughout the world.” The wall’s lone salvaged sentence is reassembled at Camden Yards, the Orioles’ current home, reading, “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”
While time may not have touched the glory, the memorial itself is long gone. Memorial Stadium, as of 1950, featured the famous wall that was cause for controversy during the already controversial demolition. Local writer and filmmaker Charles Cohen wanted to capture that glory in its final years, months, and days. As co-creator of “The Last Season,” a documentary about the stadium’s end, Cohen spent two years interviewing Baltimoreans’ reactions to the end of their Memorial Stadium including its celebrated wall.
The wall, a central focus of the film, was slated to be the one part of the stadium remaining when the rest of the structure met its final wrecking ball in 2002. Cohen interviews fans coming to see an old friend a final time as they pillage seats, haul urinals, and lug Miller Lite signs. Some cry as they reminisce and see what remains. The fans in “The Last Season” look at a ghost, their memories fighting against the glorified memories of the stadium preserved in their heads.
Through making the film, Cohen says, he saw a “strange window into the Baltimore psyche.” Baltimore is an odd place, he says, “with that Brooklyn kind of grit but a lackadaisical viewpoint.” Baltimore clings to its past in a nostalgic way but its residents are often too complacent or laid-back to really fight for it. Like our old streetcars and steamships, Memorial Stadium slipped into disrepair and became a part of Baltimore’s history. There were 11th hour protesters. Citizens lobbied their elected officials. But where were they for so long as the structure sat rotting and unused for years?
With the rest of the stadium in piles like the makings of a giant bird’s nest, “The Last Season” shows fans celebrating the salvaged wall. The chorus of “at least they’re keeping the wall,” echoes across the site as Cohen interviews Baltimoreans. Then, despite the $750,000 in additional funds used for a special procedure involving a diamond blade saw and the wishes of many to salvage the famed memorial wall, it too was leveled following the rest of its body in 2002.
For some, the total demolition meant a promising community and business opportunity, an infuriating murder of a historic landmark for many others. In Cohen’s documentary, both sides lay out their positions but the more unforgettable, the more heartfelt, the more emotive are those who rattle off memories like its roll call, with tears in their eyes, their feet standing on scraggly weeds that blanket a once manicured field. Games with a late family member, claims from the mayor at the time to “respect” constituents’ desires, memories of the Orioles final game when two men dug up home plate with pick axes, hacking, hacking, hacking for nearly thirty minutes, unearthing and ripping out the heart of the old stadium to cart it off to the Os’ new home. Many interviewees start by talking into the camera and then morosely gaze out at what the stadium had become: vacant, forgotten, and a memory of its former self, barely deserving of an address there on 33rd Street.
In a different time, it didn’t dip below 60 degrees in Baltimore on Saturday, September 29, 1945 when 14-year-old Mary Lou Luczkowski and some of her friends attended a local high school football game at what was then called Municipal Stadium. She was a beauty—her curled brown hair bounced on her shoulders, her bright Polish eyes smiled when her mouth did. She was petite, good-humored, and smart, having skipped a grade in elementary school. It was during that Poly-Patterson High game right there on 33rd Street that she met 17-year-old Vince Papa, thin-faced and Sicilian and from a different part of town. To hear her tell it, his charisma and politeness won her over that day in the massive oval structure on 33rd Street.
Just a year earlier, the Baltimore Orioles, then a minor league team, moved their home to Municipal when their own Oriole Park and its wooden stands went up in flames overnight on July 3rd into the 4th, 1944. Municipal, built in 1922, was the choice venue for local and collegiate sports at the time. The game where my grandparents Mary Lou and Vince met was just another sporting event in a blue-collar town that hadn’t yet earned professional teams of its own.
The city gradually built its reputation as the home of sports enthusiasts and the Baltimore Colts football team stomped into 33rd Street in 1947. Seven years later in 1954 Granpop had finished up his military service. He had already won over and married Grammom and they were talking about children when the Baltimore Orioles came flying back to town, this time as a pro team. Vince, Mary Lou, and Baltimore finally had their team.
With the same address, Memorial Stadium replaced Municipal in 1950, the city opting for a more enclosed and modern structure. With a capacity of 31,000 spectators, 1954 marked the first season for the major league birds, a team from St. Louis in pursuit of a better market, and landed on there 33rd Street. Memorial Stadium was soon solidified as a sports Mecca in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It quickly earned the nickname, “World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum.” And the Orioles and Colts were home.
Decades later when my parents bought their house around the way from Memorial in 1986, the stadium’s proximity was not a selling point, just a coincidence. Still, they both remember the days you could walk in unnoticed, for free after about the fourth inning while others freeloaded by watching from a fence with a view of the field. The stadium was a constant neighbor for the first decade and a half of their marriage.
Personally I can remember the lights sticking up over the hill at the end of our block. Cohen compares them to a black erector set and, if I look down the end of our street and then close my eyes, I can still see the glow from the top of that hill. White bursts erupting between black metal—an announcement of “game time” for everyone within an earshot range of a mile in every direction.
If the wind was right, we could hear players being called to bat from the stadium and right through our open windows. No air conditioning, just a hot Baltimore summer cooking our house and the echoed announcement of whatever Oriole was on deck. “Cal al al…Rip ip ip…ken ken kennnn.”
Most clearly, I can recall Jon Miller’s booming summertime voice throughout our house calling the Orioles’ plays over the constant drone of the huge metal fan that was once my height. Feats of the hometown team bounced off our walls emanating from an old silver radio, antenna pointing up as my dad did housework in cutoff jeans. I remember Dad explaining to me what Miller meant with his famous, “Give that fan a contract!” and Miller’s voice was like an anthem.
When the Orioles moved to Camden Yards in downtown Baltimore in 1992, the neighborhood felt a contradictory mixture of anger and peace, misery and relief. For a short time the stadium housed a championship Canadian Football League team, the Baltimore Stallions, who, despite success, failed to quench the football thirst of the city. So when Baltimore adopted the Cleveland Browns in 1996, in contrast to the way the Colts had been stolen from us in ’80, old trusty Memorial Stadium stepped up like the Giving Tree, happy to be needed once again. And all over, the lights over the hill beamed and loudspeaker hollers sailed to our front porch.
I remember only frustration on Sundays when my mom couldn’t find parking for “The Marshmallow,” her white hatchback Honda. We’d come home from church and she’d roar the manual engine around Ednor Gardens’ small streets talking about the “durn Ravens fans,” which we all are now. Impromptu cookouts sent smoke up from the grass lining our streets. Cans and tinfoil then lay abandoned after a mad rush to the gridiron. My mom recalls purposefully going out to pick up the spectators’ trash as they tailgated, giving them a mirror to see their disregard for our neighborhood.
By 1998, the Ravens had built their own nest, shiny and new and five whole miles from us. Parking woes were over, those lights stayed dark, and the voices were much too far to carry to our front porch. Memorial Stadium and its spot on 33rd Street were benched once again.
In the early 2000s the battle over the fate of the ground became fierce with Baltimore’s former mayor William Donald Schaffer fighting to keep the old stadium and the mayor at the time Martin O’Malley arguing for its removal. As Cohen shows in “The Last Season,” politicians fought for their constituents and seemingly for their own nostalgia in some cases.
My mom, in favor of the demolition, argued that as a resident of the neighborhood, a vagrant building that spanned 9 square blocks needed to go. She talked about friends from “the suburbs” (a phrase she always says with disdain) who wanted the stadium intact, “while we had been living here with this giant empty shell down the block.”
“It was time,” she says, then finds her way into a story about waiting in the parking lot in ’82 or ‘83 with one of her students, a boy with severe cerebral palsy. “Tyrone and I ended up in the elevator with Rex Barney [a former baseball player and Orioles announcer]. We asked where Eddie Murray parked and he actually told us,” she says.
On the steamy blacktop, Mom stood while 10-year-old Tyrone excitedly sat in his wheelchair with twisted limbs and bright eyes and they waited by Murray’s car. At the time, Murray was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner. He had been American League Rookie of the Year in 1977 but was known for his shy nature with the media and fans. Murray walked out of Memorial in civilian clothes expecting to drive away in his dark car, unperturbed; instead, he took one look at Tyrone and signed a ball for them graciously—and I can tell in her voice that she’s proud of this. She remembers snapshots like this fondly, but still thinks that in the early 2000s, “it was time.”
The YMCA, she says, serves everybody in the community, the way Memorial Stadium did, just in a different way. And there is the dichotomy of a people who are passionate about a ballpark and their history, but want growth for their city. How can Baltimore move onto the next without bidding adieu to the last? The month it finally opened in 2004, we signed up for a family membership to the new YMCA. My mom, dad, sister, and I have been working out there ever since.
“What temperature do you like to swim in?” a rotund, naked stranger asked of me recently.
“Oh I get used to it so quickly, it doesn’t really matter to me,” I said tightening my towel around my chest. The rest of my consciousness processed the familiar situation, and looked for a way to avoid staring at her bare body. I aimed my eyes at my book, but my place on the page pointed my gaze toward her stretched and drooping breasts. As I pierced my eyes through the paper, she began thoroughly toweling off, rubbing every crevice two feet from where I sat with my innocent little book. I crossed and uncrossed my legs, and crossed them again, keeping my towel over the same parts she flaunted.
“Haven’t been swimming in six weeks,” she continued as she bent down to wipe her legs. Her butt seemed to stop, and take a look at me, before widening as she lowered, then narrowing as she came back up.
I formed some reply about the therapeutic nature of swimming as she turned her body to face me. A small patch of pubic hair peeked in and out of sight as she shimmied the towel back and forth across her. The women’s sauna at the YMCA is rife with scenes like this one.
In that sauna, I have opened pores, polished off novels, held numerous conversations with strange naked people, caught a splinter in my butt, received an invitation to a line-dancing class. All within feet of where guys like Brooks Robinson, Johnny Unitas, and Cal Ripken put Baltimore on the map, where in the ‘50s, kids could be dropped off by their parents to watch the game unsupervised for 35 cents with a coupon from a box of cookies. A baseline away from where knuckleball pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm put up a no-hitter against the Yanks in September 1958 and the Colts hosted the NFL Championship in ’59, beating the Giants for the second consecutive year. Where in 1976 a plane crashed into the upper deck injuring no one because the Colts were losing so badly to the Steelers that everyone around had already left. Where, in teenaged innocence, my grandparents saw one another for the first time, and just around the way from where my parents made a life for us.
This YMCA serves Baltimore City with community outreach and engagement, programs for the elderly, summer camp for the young, after school care, nutrition education, a fitness center and pool, and so much more. The Y houses 4,000 “units” of membership (each unit can be as large as a family). I have played basketball there with my dad and run into old friends and harvest adrenaline. It’s a comfort after a long day to read a good book on the elliptical and then sweat in the sauna. I see the diversity of the people who go there and the wide range of activities that help the neighborhood where I grew up. While I know the loss of the stadium was heartbreaking for many Baltimoreans, this YMCA picks up where that community landmark left off and it serves the city. Athletes still play there; most are just significantly shorter and take many less steroids.
On a recent visit, I sat on a metal bench behind the new baseball park put in by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation in 2010. Home plate sits exactly where home plate sat in 1991 when the last O’s game was played here. Looking beyond the field, leafless trees reach with tendrils pointed skyward, the elderly housing complexes dot the perimeter where people once parked their Chevy Novas and Ford Pintos. The turf field looks impossibly green for February. And ever faithful, the row homes look down.
A girls’ lacrosse team practiced that day, running suicides as the coach yelled and whistled. Cries of “Oh mah gawwwd,” rang out and other girls yelled, “Stop complainin’!”
“Leave it all on the field! Leave it all on the field! Leave it all on the field!” hollered the coach. And I thought about all the Baltimoreans who had done just that. Right here. They left it all on the field. And I re-wrote something I’ve said so often to explain my neighborhood, “I grew up down the street from the 33rd Street YMCA.”
- Alexander, Gregory J., and Paul Kelsey Williams. Lost Baltimore. London: Anova, 2013. Print.
- Brown, Bob. House of Magic. Baltimore: The Orioles, Inc., 1991. Print.
- Cohen, Charles. Phone interview. 13 February 2014.
- Doran, Nancy. Personal interview. 15 February 2014.
- Eby, Skip. Phone interview. 13 February 2014.
- James, Mary Lou. Personal interview. 15 February 2014.
- The Last Season. Charles Cohen and Joseph Mathew. Eyesore, 2002. Film.
- Papa, Michael. Personal interview. 28 February 2014.
- YMCA of Central Maryland website. 16 February 2014. Web.